What is classical conditioning in psychology?


Classical conditioning is a fundamental concept in psychology that was first introduced by Ivan Pavlov in the early 20th century. It refers to a type of learning in which a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a meaningful stimulus, resulting in a learned response. This process is often used to explain how certain behaviors and emotional responses are acquired through repeated experiences and associations.

The components of classical conditioning

Classical conditioning involves several key components that work together to create a learned response. These components include:

Unconditioned stimulus (US)

The unconditioned stimulus (US) is a stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response without any prior learning. It typically evokes an unconditioned response (UR) that is innate and reflexive. For example, in Pavlov’s famous experiments with dogs, the presentation of food was the unconditioned stimulus that led to salivation as an unconditioned response.

Unconditioned response (UR)

The unconditioned response (UR) is the innate and reflexive response that occurs naturally in response to an unconditioned stimulus (US). In Pavlov’s experiments, the salivation of the dogs in response to the presentation of food is an unconditioned response.

Conditioned stimulus (CS)

The conditioned stimulus (CS) is a neutral stimulus that, through repeated pairing with an unconditioned stimulus (US), acquires the ability to elicit a response. Initially, the conditioned stimulus does not elicit the response of interest. However, after repeated pairings with the unconditioned stimulus, it becomes associated with the unconditioned stimulus and can trigger a conditioned response (CR). In Pavlov’s experiments, the sound of a bell was initially a neutral stimulus but became a conditioned stimulus when it was consistently paired with the presentation of food.

Conditioned response (CR)

The conditioned response (CR) is a learned response that is elicited by a conditioned stimulus (CS) after the association between the CS and the unconditioned stimulus (US) has been established. It is similar in nature to the unconditioned response (UR) but is triggered by the conditioned stimulus rather than the unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiments, the salivation of the dogs in response to the sound of the bell became a conditioned response.

The process of classical conditioning

The process of classical conditioning involves several stages that lead to the formation of a conditioned response. These stages include:


The acquisition stage is the initial phase of classical conditioning during which the association between the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the unconditioned stimulus (US) is established. It occurs through repeated pairings of the CS and the US, with the CS being presented shortly before the US. This pairing allows the CS to acquire the ability to elicit a conditioned response (CR).


Extinction refers to the gradual weakening and eventual disappearance of a conditioned response (CR) when the conditioned stimulus (CS) is repeatedly presented without the unconditioned stimulus (US). In other words, if the association between the CS and the US is no longer reinforced, the conditioned response will diminish over time.

Spontaneous recovery

Spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of a previously extinguished conditioned response (CR) after a period of time has passed without any further conditioning. This suggests that the association between the CS and the US is not completely erased but rather suppressed, and can be reactivated under certain conditions.


Generalization occurs when a conditioned response (CR) is elicited by stimuli that are similar to the conditioned stimulus (CS) that was originally paired with the unconditioned stimulus (US). This means that the learned response can be generalized to other similar stimuli, broadening the range of triggers for the conditioned response.


Discrimination is the ability to differentiate between the conditioned stimulus (CS) and other similar stimuli that do not elicit the conditioned response (CR). Through discrimination, an organism learns to respond selectively to specific stimuli and not to others.

Applications of classical conditioning

Classical conditioning has been widely studied and applied in various areas of psychology and everyday life. Some notable applications include:

Therapeutic interventions

Classical conditioning principles have been used in therapeutic interventions to treat various psychological disorders and phobias. For example, systematic desensitization is a technique that involves exposing individuals to gradually increasing levels of anxiety-provoking stimuli while practicing relaxation techniques. This helps to reduce fear and anxiety responses through the process of counterconditioning.

Advertising and marketing

Advertisers often utilize classical conditioning techniques to create positive associations with their products or brands. By pairing their products with positive stimuli, such as attractive models or pleasant music, they aim to elicit positive emotional responses and increase the likelihood of consumers choosing their products.

Drug addiction and cravings

Classical conditioning plays a role in drug addiction and cravings. Drug-related cues, such as the sight of drug paraphernalia or certain environments associated with drug use, can become conditioned stimuli that trigger cravings and relapse. Understanding these conditioning processes can help in developing effective strategies for addiction treatment and relapse prevention.


1. Can classical conditioning only occur in animals?

No, classical conditioning can occur in both animals and humans. Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs serve as a classic example of classical conditioning, but humans also exhibit similar learning processes.

2. Is classical conditioning a conscious process?

Classical conditioning can occur both consciously and unconsciously. While some associations may be learned without conscious awareness, individuals can also consciously learn and apply conditioning principles.

3. Can classical conditioning be reversed?

Yes, classical conditioning can be reversed through a process known as extinction. By repeatedly presenting the conditioned stimulus without the unconditioned stimulus, the association between the two can weaken and eventually disappear.

4. Are all conditioned responses permanent?

No, conditioned responses are not always permanent. If the association between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus is no longer reinforced, the conditioned response can weaken and extinguish over time.

5. Can classical conditioning explain all behaviors and emotional responses?

No, classical conditioning is just one of many learning processes that contribute to behaviors and emotional responses. Other factors, such as operant conditioning and cognitive processes, also play a significant role.

6. Can classical conditioning occur after a single pairing of stimuli?

While classical conditioning typically involves repeated pairings of stimuli, it is possible for conditioning to occur after a single pairing under certain circumstances. This is known as one-trial learning.

7. Can classical conditioning be used to change deeply ingrained behaviors?

Classical conditioning alone may not be sufficient to change deeply ingrained behaviors. However, it can be used in combination with other therapeutic techniques to facilitate behavior change.


Classical conditioning is a foundational concept in psychology that explains how associations between stimuli can lead to learned behaviors and emotional responses. By understanding the components and processes involved in classical conditioning, psychologists and researchers can apply this knowledge to various areas, including therapy, marketing, and addiction treatment. Classical conditioning provides valuable insights into the ways in which our experiences shape our behaviors and responses.

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